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Judaism & veganism: The intersection of two paths

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I remember a conversation I had with a fellow community member a few months ago. I told her about my job at the Jewish Vegetarian Society and immediately a perplexed expression danced across her face. “Judaism and vegetarianism?!” she said. “How could those things possibly go together?!” She’s not alone with this question – many Jews connect their Judaism with eating animals, so the association of Judaism and vegetarianism, let alone veganism, is difficult to imagine. We’re an incredibly food-loving people, and so many of us have strong memories linking Judaism to not-s0-vegan-friendly foods. Chicken soup at Friday night dinner, a hearty brisket on Pesach, a meaty cholent for Shabbat afternoon… But a closer examination of Jewish texts reveals that there are many ways in which Judaism and veganism are actually incredibly aligned. Here’s a taste of just a few teachings that show how veganism and Judaism can be two paths that intersect.

Firstly, there’s the concept of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the Rabbinic injunction to prevent animal suffering. The Rabbis of the Talmud use the following Biblical verse as their proof text: “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him” (Exodus 23:5). The literal meaning of the biblical verse is that if you see an animal in pain, no matter who it belongs to – even if it’s somebody you hate – you’re still required to help that animal. The Rabbis, however, take the meaning of this verse even further, deriving from this that “the requirement to prevent suffering towards animals is by Torah law” (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 32b). I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that not eating animals or using products derived from animals is a pretty sure way to prevent animal suffering, and thus fulfil this Torah law. 

Second, there’s a strong strain in Jewish thought that being herbivores was G-d/dess’s plan for us all along, and that one day, when we live in a redeemed world (that is, a world that has been healed from all its current brokenness), we’ll all be herbivores again, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When G-d/dess first creates humans, S/he tells them: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29). The famous medieval French commentator, Rashi, says that this means that all living beings, humans included, ate only plants: “Scripture places cattle and beasts on a level with them (human beings: that is, it places all alike in the same category) with regard to food, and did not permit Adam to kill any creature and eat its flesh, but all alike were to eat herbs” (Rashi on Genesis 1:29). Many Jews believe that in the Messianic Age*, things will return to the way they were in the Garden of Eden. If this is true, it follows that in the Messianic Age, we’ll all be vegan! This view is supported by a number of different scholars in our tradition. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, whose name some of you may recognise from the widely used “Hertz Chumash (printed version of the Torah)”, wrote in his commentary: “In the primitive ideal age (as also in the Messianic future …), the animals were not to prey on one another” (Hertz on Genesis 1:29). Going further back in history, the medieval scholars Rabbi Isaac Arama (1420-1494) and Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380-1444), also agreed that all humans would be vegetarian in the time of the Messiah. The famous medieval Kabbalist (Jewish mystic) Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), took this even one step further, arguing that all life on Earth would become vegetarian in the Messianic Age. More recently, this idea was championed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine (what Israel/Palestine was called when under British rule).

Third, we have some pretty high-flying vegan ancestors. You might have read our article on Queen Esther’s choice to eat a vegan diet when she was in the Persian royal court, or Daniel’s decision to do the same when he was taken into the service of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. This seems to be a widely-held Rabbinic solution for what you should do when kosher food isn’t easily available, so given that our people haven’t always had the easiest of histories, we probably have far more vegan ancestors than we even know about!

Lastly, let’s introduce another Rabbinic concept, bal tashchit, which means “do not destroy,” and is the prohibition against waste. The source text for this law is the following Biblical verse: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy (lo tashchit) the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for you may eat of them but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it fall” (Deut. 20:19-20). Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the source text itself isn’t all unicorns and rainbows – as much as it raises up the lives of plants, it devalues human life – and I would never personally want to advocate that. However, what the Rabbis do with this text is interesting. They say that this text comes to show that you shouldn’t destroy resources at all: “Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit” (Kiddushin 32a). According to a 2018 study from the University of Oxford:

Cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. Meanwhile, if everyone stopped eating these foods, they found that global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.  Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up wild land lost to agriculture, one of the primary causes for mass wildlife extinction.

If these statistics are correct, not adhering to a vegan diet could be considered a violation of bal tashchit. Animal agriculture is incredibly destructive to the environment, and given the growing plant-based alternatives for food, is also highly unnecessary. Jewish law would encourage us to choose the least wasteful diet, and that’s definitely a vegan one.

In conclusion, Judaism and veganism aren’t such disparate pathways after all. A Jewish vegan can rest assured that they are fulfilling the commandments to reduce animal suffering and to refrain from destroying resources, as well as walking in the footsteps of their ancestors. And according to many, they’re even living the way G-d/dess always intended us to, the way that we will all live when the Messianic Age arrives.

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Photo credit:  Arnaud Mesureur on Unsplash

Note:

*One can understand the “Messianic Age” in a host of different ways both literal and metaphorical, but what I mean when I use the term is an ideal state of the world in which everyone has everything they need, and there’s justice, peace, equality and collective spirit. A more traditional understanding is that a particular human being, the Messiah, will arrive and bring about this ideal ideal state of being. I understand this state of being as something that will be brought about by us collectively.

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Kohenet Yael Tischler a ritual-weaver, Jewish educator and song leader.  She is the co-founder of Yelala, a constellation of work that celebrates Earth-centred, feminist Jewish spirituality and reclaims the practices of our women/femme and folk ancestors.  She holds an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University, a BA in English Literature from Columbia University and a BA in Tanakh (Bible) from the Jewish Theological Seminary. 

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